Why ethics initiatives can lose momentum, and how to fix it

  • 6 June 2018

Research into the impact that ethics initiatives achieve points to a flurry of activity at launch, but a tailing off in attention and momentum as the year progresses. People often talk about a lack of support or insufficient traction. There are two questions here of course: why does this happen, and what can you do about it? We'll look at both in this blog post.

Eight reasons why ethics initiatives lose momentum

Ethics initiatives can sometimes become overly bogged down in policies and processes. Most firms have more than enough of those already. The prospect of adding in more tends to result in the ethics initiative being labelled as too complicated.

At the same time, there can be a view that once policies and procedures are eventually put in place, then with a bit of training, the job is done. Far from it: not many people change their ways because of an addition to the staff manual.

Some ethics initiatives have a time frame of a year or more, yet many of those associated with the initiative know that their firm, the market or their particular role is likely to change in some way over that timescale. As a result, they resist making the adjustments necessary for the ethics initiative to progress.

It can be a de-motivator if the ethics initiative has been framed in a somewhat ‘pot half empty’ way. This can lead to people holding back from the initiative to avoid being associated with any blame. The ethics initiative may be addressing serious issues, but solving such issues often hinges on cooperation.

Some ethics initiatives often start out with a lot of support from employees, but that popularity then dwindles or fizzles out. A big reason for this is lack of feedback. Sometimes employees who make an effort never find out what affect that effort had, so are never sure if it was worthwhile. They then suspect that nothing was likely to really change and so write off the initiative as a bit of a gimmick.

Other ethics initiatives lose momentum because they’re not sufficiently connected into the reality of peoples’ everyday work. They’re conducted on too general a basis, or seek solutions that people can’t understand how to plug into the tasks they undertake on a day by day basis.

Some ethical initiatives run out of steam because the wrong person is put in charge of them. Does the person have the incentive to really tackle a tricky issue. Do they have the authority and people skills to convince people to adjust their conduct?

And finally, some ethical initiatives fail because senior executives send out contradictory signals. A typical example is that ethics is fine, so long as it doesn’t affect revenue streams. This signals more deep seated issues around the firm’s ethical culture.

Ethics initiatives deal with very human characteristics like behaviours and values. This makes them pretty tricky at times. So while you may recognise where you want to get to, it’s worth spending time making sure your way of getting there is going to work. This is what we’ll cover now in the second part of this blog post

Some ideas to make ethics initiatives work better

Clearly, it makes senses to design your ethical initiative so that it engages its audience on a progressive basis during the year. Staged inputs and outcomes are more likely to generate not just regular attention, but perhaps more importantly, regular take up of what you want people to do. That’s because people need time to practice the new skill, to reframe how they do things, to tackle something they’ve shied away from in the past. It makes what they learn ‘more sticky’.

Yet sometimes ethics initiatives lose momentum because people can just get very busy. And in such times, it’s perhaps only natural that we stick with what we’re familiar in order to get everything done in time. However people can sometimes ‘feel’ too busy to try something different. Changing ‘how things get done round here’ is no small task and sometimes we defend the status quo by reinterpreting our workload to avoid change. Again, natural but not great beyond the short term.

This is where an ethics communication plan can come in handy. If you want something to change in what your people do, how they behave, how they respond, then you need to let them know that you care about them doing this. And that doesn’t happen with a one off instruction.

So you’re got to plan for a regular, structured flow of information that ensures your firm’s ethical initiative remains familiar and part of how people see things. This doesn’t come from another big speech from the C suite, but instead, a mix of reminders, good examples, examples of the less than good, ‘how to’ thoughts – all woven together into a plan. What you really must avoid is the big launch and then just a online checkbox to confirm something has been read. That’s more like a recipe for a step back rather than a step forward.

Remember that your ethics initiative doesn’t have to cover everything in one go. Better to scope the ethical landscape your firm is working in and plan your initiative as a rolling set of straightforward and relevant steps to build achievement. So start by finding the key ethical risks (more here) and identifying the key objectives (more here) that are shaping that landscape. Then break your journey down into stages that show people how to do something better, and then give them support in how to sustain that ‘better’.

It’s also important to balance action with feedback. Changing ‘the way things get done round here’ is often a complex and sensitive process, and that’s makes your ethics initiative very much a two way project. Ask people for their feedback, for their experiences, for their hopes and concerns. From these, build the firm’s response into your rolling communications plan. Tell people what’s changed since the ethics initiative started, and just as important, what’s proving difficult. It will after all, be something your people will be all too aware of anyway.

And finally, be consistent, in supporting the steps forward that people make, and in challenging inactivity or resistance. Remind them why change is necessary, both from the perspective of the firm and of their particular role.

If you have any questions about this post, please get in touch

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